Augmented reality is becoming a huge tool in how today’s journalists tell a story because it offers readers what traditional print does not. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words is augmented reality worth?

That concept is put to the test by Florida Today with their newly released app 321 Launch. The app uses augmented reality to bring live coverage of rockets launching out of Cape Canaveral. Florida Today partnered with USA Today to develop the app. It’s available to both iOS and Android users.

“It’s divided into two parts,” said Emre Kelly, space reporter at Florida Today. “First, a narrated educational experience that allows users to take a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the pad, learn more about how teams prepare it for liftoff, and then actually launch the rocket in AR. Finally, users can follow as the rocket’s first stage comes back to land. The app’s second section, and perhaps its core feature, is all of the above, but in real time as a rocket launches from Cape Canaveral,” he said.

Kelly explained that by using past data, a trajectory can be built for the live rocket launch. The app performs with “down-to-the-second” accuracy.

“This app is the first of its kind for journalism. No other spaceflight, science, or even national publication has attempted to merge real-time happenings with augmented reality. The best part, though, is that 321 Launch still incorporates our traditional journalism into the stream,” Kelly said. “AR, whether seeing it as a stepping stone to VR, or a different technology for different uses, is already impacting journalism. It opens up more opportunities to tell stories. Journalists did it with photography, then with radio, then with video. Why not AR?” said Kelly.

Given that 321 Launch is in the vanguard in fusing these two types of storytelling, Florida Today did not have a template to go off of during development. Their relationship with USA Today allowed them an ample-sized team of individuals dedicated to creating the app. According to Kelly, the team twice toured Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to get an understanding of how to incorporate AR.

“The development team, most of which is made up of former game developers, already knew how to code and design for AR. We used our in-house knowledge of rocketry, commercial launch companies and how launches work to develop the app. We also compiled trajectory information with outside help so our AR rocket would accurately fly to its destination in real-time,” Kelly said.

Currently, the app has about 100,000 downloads, and costs nothing to users. According to Kelly, Florida Today is still developing new educational features for the app. They are also planning on adding more rockets to the inventory of available live experiences.

“As for what people take away, I hope they see we tried something new —  something that involved heavy investments of time and resources. It hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been incredible and the overall reception we’ve received from this tech-savvy, space-loving audience has been positive,” said Kelly.

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